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Tactical Combat Mechanics in The Storm Guard

The Storm Guard is a turn-based strategy game for PC/Mac currently in development. It was inspired by XCOM, Guild Wars and FTL. This article explains the design decisions around its tactical combat layer. In our previous post, you can find more info on the strategy layer.

Basic Combat Mechanics

When designing The Storm Guard, our initial focus was to come up with an enjoyable combat system. We starting by collecting do’s (things we wanted to have) and don’ts (things we wanted to avoid at all cost):

  • Don’t make combat a simple click-fest – offer many tactical options.
  • Don’t make combat frustrating, intransparent or overly complex.
  • Don’t disregard positioning, flanking and viewing direction, give them a meaning.
  • Don’t waste the players time.
  • Work with easy to grasp concepts like positioning, flanking, viewing direction, and line of sight.
  • Create interesting skills that allow cooperation between character classes.
  • Create interesting effects that can turn the tides of a battle.
  • Make death and damage taken matter.

Randomness

The amount of randomness in battle is a tricky decision. Random outcomes keep things interesting as you can never be too safe about the outcome. Too much randomness, however, can be frustrating and may result in the player feeling disempowered.

Design Choice: We decided to keep the RNG in check. Characters can score criticals and weapons/skills have a damage range but exceptional good or bad rolls will not be a deciding factor during combat.

Ninja scoring a critical hit on a Zombie.

Ninja scoring a critical hit on a Zombie.

Misses

A lot of times, games have a chance to hit an enemy (or, in other terms, they occasionally miss). Total misses are frustrating because you have zero control on when they happen. We didn’t want to implement a standard to-hit system. It sucks if a warrior tries to hit a clumsy giant who is not even looking his way and misses.

On the other hand, if every strike is a sure hit, then the game becomes a boring “who-does-more-damage-in-time” contest.

Design Choice: In TNW, characters usually don’t miss for no reason. If they are blind or affected by a curse that causes them to miss, then it can happen, but they won’t just miss due to a bad roll. However, during an attack, the attacked character can try to defend against the attack. Possible defenses are blocking with a shield, parrying with your own weapon or dodging the blow. Different character classes have different chances to defend against incoming attacks – as long as they see it coming.

This has a number of advantages:

  • The chance to hit is dependent on who you are trying to hit. A fat Oger won’t dodge your blows (or even bother to otherwise defend). Conversely, a nimble Kobold seeing your attack coming has a higher chance of stepping out of its way. The player can find out beforehand about his chances to hit a target and take this into account for his decisions.
  • Defending is only possible if the target is looking into your direction. The player can counter enemies with high defense abilities by flanking them, negating their defenses.

The Elven Assassin parrying a blow from a Skeleton.

The Elven Assassin parries a blow from a Skeleton.

Flanking

Flanking has been used in a number of games and is a very good mechanic. Players should get an advantage for hitting others from the sides or back. However, in turn-based games, flanking often results in characters mutually flanking each other on their turn.

Design Choice: Flanking in TNW requires you to tie up an enemy with one unit, then flank it with another. A single character cannot flank another, then get counter-flanked, etc. as characters will always auto-face opponents if they have a single opponent only.

Characters successfully flanking an opponent get the following benefits:

  • Prevent defensive actions (shield block, parry, evade).
  • Get a higher chance of a critical.
  • Potentially enable skills that only work when flanking a target.

Tieing up Units

In most fantasy games, there are soft characters (e.g. mages) and tanks (e.g. heavily armored warriors). This means that if you have half a brain, then you just kill the soft characters first (in particular healers), then deal with the sturdier enemies. This results in a strategically shallow system where the best option is a no brainer. We didn’t want this to happen. We rather want tanks to be able to protect their squishier party members and we also didn’t want people to simply ignore characters who are trying to hit you.

Design Choice: We came up with a system where melee fighters can tie up units they are facing. While tied up, they cannot use ranged weapons to fire at somebody else. In addition, disengaging from a melee opponent means that your opponent will be granted a free hit on your turn.

Spells & Skills

Positioning alone is not sufficient for a deep and interesting combat experience. Like most games, we added skills and spells to the game. Characters usually have a pool of energy they can use to cast spells or use special combat skills. Characters can choose to use standard attacks (that don’t cost energy) or chose one of the equipped skills.

There’s a wide range of spells and skills in the game, each with their own effects. Some skills are simple in nature (e.g. heal an ally or damage an enemy) but most skills have some kind of synergy for the player to use. Many will cause some effect on the target character (friend or foe) or use an existing effect to trigger a new one.

Each class has its own set of skills to choose from. A new character comes with random skills and needs to be developed from there. He can learn new skills or improve the ones he has already learned. You will need to make a decision how you want to play your characters and what skills to focus on.

Learn and improve skills in the Training Hall.

Learn and improve skills in the Training Hall.

Effects

Skills that do additional damage or heal for an amount of health are fine but to be honest: they are boring. We need something to make skills interesting from a tactical perspective. So, we added Effects to the combat mechanics. They are long-lasting effects on a character impacting him each turn. The lasting nature of effects means that we can make much more interesting skills that either cause effects or trigger special consequences based on the existence of effects. There’s a number of different types of effects, the first being Conditions.

Conditions

Usually, conditions are inflicted on a character by using special skills and then last several turns (or until they are removed). The effects depend on the type of condition:

  • Bleeding: bleeding causes the affected character to lose a fix amount of health each turn. A character can suffer from multiple stacks of bleeding at the same time which can potentially be dangerous.
  • Poison: poison also causes damage over time (more than bleeding) but cannot be stacked. It typically has a longer duration though.
  • Crippled: a crippled character has his movement speed halved. This can be used to kite enemies or to prevent them from running away. Crippled characters also get their chance to block, parry or evade reduced.
  • Weakened: weakened characters have their damage reduced to one third. This can make the difference between surviving a hit or dying.
  • Blind: blind characters have a high chance to miss (~90%).
  • Deep Wounds: deep wounds reduce the maximum hit points and healing effects on a character making them easier to kill.
  • Burning: burning characters take huge damage every turn for as long as the condition lasts.
  • Cracked Armor: characters with cracked armor have their armor rating reduced taking more damage from physical attacks.

Conditions make skills more interesting as they can cause some long-lasting effects that we can leverage. For example, we can design a skill that does a lot more damage if the enemy is affected by a certain condition. That way, we can have a more interesting synergies between characters. Conditions are very common, a lot of character classes (including monsters), in particular characters doing physical damage, have an abundance of skills that inflict conditions.

The blind Elven Hunter can't hit the broad side of a barn.

The blind Elven Hunter can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
 

Knockdowns

Some special skills can cause a character to be knocked down. A knocked-down character will automatically stand up next turn, but will be unable to act. In other words, knocked-down characters lose a turn. This can be used to temporarily disable opponents or interrupt a chain of attacks (aka a “combo”).

The Ninja finds herself knocked down to the floor.

The Ninja finds herself knocked down to the floor.

Buffs

Buffs are (typically minor) positive effects on a character. Most buffs only affect the character using the buff and are therefore less team oriented. However, on the positive side, buffs cannot be removed.

Shouts

Like buffs, shouts are positive effects on a group of characters. Shouts have an area of effect around the shouting character, causing all allies to be affected. Like buffs, shouts cannot be removed by the enemy team. Shouts typically provide some defensive powerups although some may also improve the team’s offense.

The Warrior shouts increasing the party's armor.

The Warrior shouts increasing the party’s armor.

Enchantments

Enchantments are long-lasting beneficial effects on a character granted by an allied spell caster. Compared to buffs and shouts, enchantments typically are more powerful but they can be removed by the enemy team (assuming they have equipped suitable skills). There’s a wide array of enchantments in the game, ranging from healing over time, protection to enchantments improving your damage output.

Enchanted Characters can be recognized by an orange Glyph Symbol.

Enchanted Characters can be recognized by an orange Glyph Symbol.

Hexes

Like Enchantments, Hexes are long-lasting effects, except that they have a negative impact on the affected character. Like enchantments, hexes can be removed via special skills and potions. The Elven Witch focuses on hex magic. Hexes take some getting used to but can be extremely powerful in the right situation.

Hexed Characters wear a cold (blueish) Glyph Symbol.

Hexed Characters wear a cold (blueish) Glyph Symbol.

Special Mechanics

Combos

Some character classes rely on combos. This basically means that they perform a chain of skills on the same target usually for a devastating effect. For example, the elven assassin typically chains a main hand, off-hand and a final dual attack for a huge damage spike. Usually, the final attack does the bulk of the damage.

Combos are great if you can pull them off but the enemy gets the chance to interrupt a combo typically by knocking down the attacker. Also, since combos require attacking the same target, combos run into the chance of the target dying before you can finish the combo effectively wasting it. Therefore, the player must use combos wisely.

Adrenaline

Most skills are energy based, i.e. the character must have enough energy to use it. Some characters have another resource: adrenaline. At the beginning of the fight, an adrenaline-based character has no adrenaline and cannot use the corresponding skills. Adrenaline is built up by hitting the enemy. This means, adrenaline-based characters get more powerful the longer a character is fighting as they can then spam adrenaline-based skills at a much higher rate than energy skills.

On the downside, since they must build up the adrenaline first, they are weaker in the first turns. Also, failing to hit an enemy can also deny adrenaline or result in loss of adrenaline already built up.

Some characters are hybrid: they do have energy and adrenaline based skills.

Death and Damage

Death is Permanent

In real life, getting seriously injured or dying is not exactly nothing. We wanted death and serious injury to count in The Storm Guard. Therefore, we went for permadeath: characters dying in combat will be dead for good. There’s no way to bring back a dead character. You’ll have to replace him with another member. This keeps the player more engaged in combat: you don’t want to see a character that has won you many battles dead. You probably have invested a lot of time (and gold) into his career. In other terms, you will act with more caution to prevent this from happening.

This warrior is dead for good.

This warrior is dead for good.
It is usually possible to keep your heroes alive with careful play but at times, characters will be dying. Players make mistakes, underestimate a monster or run into a particularly difficult encounter they are ill-equipped for. These are dramatic moments and the player must make difficult decisions (do I forsake a team member so I can retreat with the rest? shall I abandon the mission?).

In any case, losing a character or even a full party wipe doesn’t end the game right there. Assuming you have some economy left, you can usually recover from this setback and lead other heroes to victory.

Damage & Constitution

We generally wanted to reward players for good play. Therefore, characters taking damage during combat will get their constitution lowered which means they will be get their health, energy and damage output reduced. Constitution can be recovered by resting in Town but depending on the amount of constitution lost, this will take several (in-game) days.

From a design perspective, this offers the following benefits:

  • Players are rewarded for playing more carefully and not taking unnecessary damage. Sloppy gameplay will be punished.
  • Players are encouraged to develop multiple characters in parallel so they can replace those currently resting in town. It’s not enough to have a good A-Team, you should invest into a B-Team and probably a C-Team.

Resting in the Sanctuary restores lost constitution. This costs time and gold.

Resting in the Sanctuary restores lost constitution. This costs time and gold.

Conclusion

Overall, we’re quite happy with the mechanics for the tactical combat. They offer a lot of depth while not adding too much complexity.

We’ve implemented around 100 different skills based on these mechanics, and each character class and skill can be distinct. This offers a lot of options during combat but it is equally interesting on the strategy level where you can decide how you want to develop your heroes. Do you want to build a full defense warrior? Or focus on skills that help quickly gain adrenaline to dish out the pain? Or do you favor a condition heavy build? Will your healer specialize in instant healing or do you prefer protection and healing over time enchantments?

The different mechanics also open up a lot of options when it comes to designing the monsters. Each of the more than thirty monster classes will have unique abilities that puts it apart from the rest. This means that you need to employ different strategies depending on what type of encounter you are facing.

The biggest challenge was the AI that has to factor in and evaluate many options in its gameplay. We’ll post an article about how we handle that in the future.

Overall, the current system makes combat pretty enjoyable and results in some pretty neat emergent behavior.